FootballQ: What’s Wrong with the Jets? A: Walt Michaels
The Village Voice
October 8-14, 1980
As Howard says: “The Most Disappointing Team in the National Football League.” You assholes should be in a high school league, there you may even have a .500 record. You opened your mouth up to the press: “We don’t deserve to be booed.” You fuckin’ turkeys don’t even deserve to be watched. You better grease your assholes because Baltimore is going to shove it so far! your eyes will have Pete Rozelle’s signature in them.
—Coach John Idzik
Half cruel humor, half pure salt, this supportive piece of fan-mail was tacked to the New York Jets lockerroom bulletin board before the second Colts game by some Jet with an overdeveloped sense of irony, honesty, and tragedy.
Irony, because the sender was surely not Idzik—fired by head coach Walt Michaels last season as the Jets’ offensive coordinator and now a Colts coach—but rather a bitter fan seeking to deprecate Michaels’ boomeranging decision. Honesty, because in the season’s first three weeks, the Jets had gone from curiously bad against Baltimore at Shea, to phlegmatic against Buffalo, to plain pathetic against San Francisco. Tragedy, because the letter—posted as a last-ditch motivational device to prevent signature sodomy in Baltimore—would at the same time remind the Jets of their at-first hidden but now fatal flaw: the astonishing lack of direction, leadership, and motivation provided by Michaels himself.
Since being named coach of the year by Pro Football Weekly after a surprisingly middling 8-8 season in ’78 (they were, of course, laughable in previous years), Michaels has taken what is potentially the finest club in its division and run it squarely into the cellar. On the way, he’s compiled an impressive shopping list of blunders and bad vibes.
He lost two highly successful and popular offensive assistants to teams in his own division; Dan Henning deserted to Shula’s Miami, the aforementioned Idzik—who’d directed the offense to the league-rushing crown in ’79 and third in scoring in ’78—was fired for “undermining Walt’s authority.” Michaels created and then bungled last year’s starting quarterback scrap between Richard Todd and Matt Robinson by punishing Robinson, who’d won the job, for incurring an “off-the-field” injury. He cut Bob Martin, thought by some players to be the team’s best linebacker, after Martin voiced displeasure with his conract. He traded veteran safety and player union representative Burgess Owens, getting peanuts in return, because he decided his Swiss cheese defense didn’t need anyone with seven years’ experience. He traded Robinson, with whom he had a personality conflict, in favor of Richard Todd, of whose habits he approves—especially since Todd complied with Michaels’s request that he move out of Manhattan to Point Lookout, Long Island.
This season, with the number two selection in the entire draft and the worst passing defense in the history of the NFL, Michaels selected Lam Jones, a wide receiver with Concordian speed but questionable hands. That’s like dining on truffles while your body’s craving steak. Next, he failed to hire a replacement for Idzik—though in his 25 years in the league he himself had only defensive experience—and decided that Todd, who reads defenses at a level years beneath his class, would call his own plays. After the first three losses, Michaels blew more icy air into the already chilled Jet locker room by waiving four-year starter Lawrence Pillers, who in addition to being his best lineman against the run—where the Jets rank dead-last in the American Conference—was popular with his teammates. (Just last spring, Michaels said he “sure as hell” wanted to play Pillers for his defense against the run, and years of experience.) San Francisco, incredulous, claimed him straightaway while Michaels went off to a rookie free agent who’d never played a down of pro ball, not even on special teams.
So who is this guy? Walt Michaels is a paradox. On the one hand, he’s a staunchly conservative, hard-working, corporate professional—“scholarly,” wrote the Times in a column befitting the head of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. A former psychology major in college, Michaels, according to former backup QB Marty Domres, “doesn’t bother with psychology . . . doesn’t try to arouse your emotions.” He believes in cool professionalism and mental preparation, disdaining coaches who are emotionally close to their players and those who seek championships with “castoffs and troublemakers.” So although his Jets are in desperate need of spare parts, Michaels wouldn’t think of picking up established talents such as Thomas Henderson and Chuck Muncie, or New England holdout Steve Owen. They don’t fit his “program.”
On the other hand, Michaels is a bilious old tough-guy, a blunt and insensitive SOB from Pennsylvania coal country, an anachronistic campaigner for the family, the flag, Guadalcanal, sports jackets on road trips, and the blessed virtues of loyalty to and fear of the coach. He wants his players to fear him, mistakenly believing fear and respect are synonymous. What they fear is his temper (called “undirected rage” by one long-time observer), his tendency to castigate one in front of the others, and his prolicidal urge to punish or vanquish the impudent, the fractious, the critical, the disloyal “talkers.” So what the Jets get is the worst of both worlds: a no-nonsense organization man incapable of connecting emotionally to his young players, and a splenetic dictator who cultivates an atmosphere of tension, competition, and paranoia, and seems unable to halt the steady detrition of young talent so obvious to anyone who’s watched the Jets this year.
About all this, Michaels’ lips are sealed. Over two weeks’ time, he hadn’t even 10 minutes for an interview. Why talk about his own failures when he can hide behind the foibles of his players, most of whom he drafted or signed. Michaels can take comfort in the weekly political press conferences where sportswriters concentrate on the future or past battle while ignoring the tenor and trend of the overall war. He can also blame the press or use it to criticize his players, as he did last week when he asked reporters, “Did you notice Joe Klecko in the game?” Was he that bad Walt? Did anyone notice Michaels in the game? Funny, Michaels demands that his players not air any dirty laundry of the Jet family. Loyalty, as the happily exiled Burgess Owens exclaims, “is a one-way street with Walt.”
Naturally enough, the players are hesitant to talk. As one told me: “You’re gonna have trouble getting the story- ’cause no one here wants to jeopardize anything, like his career.” Privately, though, some register dismay over Michaels’ axing of Owens, Pillers, and Idzik, his draft of Lam, his trade of Robinson, but mostly over the tension his rule has fostered. Players are so worried about their jobs that the needed social and emotional ties between them have never developed. Fullback Tom Newton shrugs: “It’s really sad ’cause the only time we see each other is at work, and we’re all pretty much young guys. And when we hang, white hangs with white and black hangs with black. It’s not like that on the teams that are together, the teams that win.”
There’s resentment on the Jets about the way Michaels cut Pillers as an example, a warning, a sacrifice to waning team enthusiasm. Pillers, reached for comment in San Francisco, is hardly alone in condemning Michael’s lack of communication. The coach has a favorite player or two (one is linebacker Greg Buttle) upon whom he bestows the gift of conversation; everyone else gets silence. As a result, says Pillers, “not everyone is on the same page.” And what of Michaels’s motivation-though-fear technique? “Look, this is a new decade and fear ain’t the motivator it used to be. Fear can mess with you, make you play tight, ’cause you become so afraid of fuckin’ up.”
This from the man Michaels once called a “throwback,” the kind of player he wanted to stock his team with. But he is having trouble finding enough 1980 putty to fill his 1957 mold. Said one Jet: “There are too many players today who are different than Walt. That’s why the dictatorship he wants this year ain’t working. He’s concerned about all this bullshit, like personalities and the press and all. I thought the only important thing was winning, but I guess I was wrong.”
Wrong, too, was Burgess Owens, last year’s defensive captain, for thinking he should have a talking relationship, an open exchange of ideas, with Michaels. That is that they rarely spoke. From the Security of Oakland he tells, “Anybody who’s bold enough to say anything or do anything different from Walt is thought of as a troublemaker. There’s a shadow hanging over you; you might say something wrong at the wrong time. And if you do something wrong, he won’t sit down and talk to you man to man. That’s not Walt’s way. He’ll scold you. How can you play loose when you’re always being scolded? Damn, he treats players like adolescents.” Michaels actually compares his players to children, moralizing, “Do your children always know what’s best for them?”
If Michael’s diplomacy is on a par with Brother Billy’s, then has strategic and organizational skills are equally deficient. In four years he’s put together a defense composed largely of wishful thinking, an offense that he’s allowed to veer away from what the Jets do best—run the football — whenever they fall behind. (In five games, the Jets have been ahead only once, by a score of 3.0, for a short time in the first quarter of the Buffalo game.) Last week, he rushed a completely disorganized kicking team onto the field for a late first-half field goal attempt. A timeout was clearly called for, but Michaels wouldn’t call one. The play ended with a blocked kick and a 65-yard touchdown run for New England.
Likewise, when I asked cornerback Bobby Jackson why the Jets had set its alarm for 2 p.m. against the 49ers when the game started at 1, only to wake up trailing 24-0, he responded, “The coaches had us in a new defense and people didn’t know what to do. You shoulda seen us that whole week of practice; we were running around like chickens with our heads cut off.” Not that only their defensive strategy was questioned. Bill Walsh, the 49er coach, admitted that if the Jets had only decided to run the ball early—instead of panicking and letting Todd pass and pass for a vacuous record of 42 pass completions—his team could not have stopped them. That’s an annoying thought for the Jet running backs and for the fans as well, who booed Todd’s record.
Sunday, the dark choruses and snide songs were mostly reserved for Michaels. Not that singing will change anything: Michaels openly admits that it’s too late for him to change, as a coach or a person, and Jet management has given him the proverbial vote of confidence. The party line on the Jets’ crash landing, as detailed to me by their president, Jim Kensil, is that “certain players have unexpectedly done things at inopportune times, or not done things, whatever the case may be.” Which is like Lee Iococca blaming his workers for Chrysler’s bankruptcy. Kensil’s alibi rings a rather dissonant note, since the Jet management’s motto is: “It all starts at the top.”
And the man at the top is beginning to show the strain. Four years in the “building,” this Jets’ team has been dismantled in but five weeks. Michaels is responsible for both. After the Patriot game, while seagulls circled like vultures above the empty field and parking lot at Shea, Michaels gave the press the usual reasons. Mistakes, tightness, big plays. He once referred to his team as “they.” He said they’ll miss Clark Gaines, out for the year with a broken leg. Said that Gaines is a leader. Paused. Said: “And we have too few leaders to begin with.”